As we navigate life through the global coronavirus pandemic, our church faces the same crisis as churches and communities around the world. Over the past week alone, our own state of Ohio has gone from having four confirmed cases to having eighty-eight confirmed cases. This past Monday, President Trump issued guidelines that Americans should “avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people.” That same day, the Ohio Department of Health prohibited mass gatherings of fifty or more people, while strongly recommending that Ohioans voluntarily comply with President Trump’s guidelines.
Both federal and state government officials are urging us to avoid social gatherings in confined spaces both for our own health and for the health of others. The coronavirus spreads through person-to-person contact. Though it can be dangerous to everyone, it is especially harmful to people with underlying health problems, whether due to age or other circumstances.
God commands us in Scripture: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” because God himself has instituted all authority under Him (Rom 13:1). This paragraph concludes, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom 13:7).
I love fellowshiping and worshiping with you all at Friendship Baptist Church. God gives us this duty (Heb 10:24-25), but it is a delight to obey, and our times of worship and fellowship are always a highlight of my week. At the same time, God commands us to submit to our government. Both our federal and state government officials, who are relying on the wise counsel of trained and experienced medical professionals, have advised us to avoid gathering together temporarily to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We are living through an unprecedented situation, but in past cases of medical emergencies, godly churches have obeyed the American government and avoided meeting together. Even in the midst of this crisis, many of our fellow churches in Ohio have already cancelled in-person worship services.
It is with a heavy heart then that I likewise announce that Friendship Baptist Church will not have public worship services this Sunday, March 22. This week, I have prayerfully agonized over this decision. I believe this closure is best for our own church body and for our neighbors, not out of fear, but out of love. Many of us in the congregation are at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus. I am praying many times a day that God would spare all of us at Friendship and our neighbors from being afflicted with the coronavirus. As we learned just a couple weeks ago in Matthew 9:35-10:15, God wants our actions to align with our prayers. If temporarily avoiding gathering together as a church will help us avoid contracting the coronavirus, then that is a wise measure to take. Temporarily abstaining from gathering together as a church also helps us to show respect to our governing authorities. It helps us honor both our fellow church members and neighbors, as well, as we seek to keep not only ourselves but also others safe from contracting the coronavirus.
At the same time, I do want us as a church to continue to be diligent to obey Hebrews 10:24-25 as best we can: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” This Sunday, March 22, we will not have public worship services at Friendship Baptist Church, but I will livestream the sermon I have been preparing for Sunday morning worship on Friendship’s Facebook page at 10:30am. If you are a member or regular attender of Friendship Baptist Church, I encourage you to worship with your family at home this Sunday morning and watch the sermon together. Also, we cannot safely congregate together at present, but we can still “stir up one another” and encourage one another by calling and texting one another throughout the week, praying for each other, and serving one another in creative ways in this unprecedented time. Members and regular attenders of Friendship, I am so thankful to be your pastor and love each of you deeply in the Lord. I will be reaching out to you regularly while our church is unable to congregate. If Abi or I can serve you in any way, whether through prayer, verbal encouragement, or by picking up groceries, prescriptions, or other supplies you need, we are looking forward to serving you. I will also be maintaining regular office hours at the church during the week even while our public services are temporarily cancelled.
Finally, I want us all to pay attention to the phrase in Hebrews 10:25, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” The command to gather together for worship and mutual encouragement is vital. It is a law of God, and as is each of God’s commands for us, it is life-giving (Ps 19:7-11). The Facebook livestream of my sermon cannot replace gathering together to sing praises to God, read the Scripture, give toward the advance of His kingdom, sit under His word together, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. To obey Hebrews 10:24-25 even while we cannot physically meet together, we must miss meeting together. We must constantly pray and long for this crisis to pass so that we may safely gather together as a church family again. We must not make it a habit not to meet together, so as soon as we may safely gather together again, we should. Toward that end, I am making this a week-by-week decision whether we will have public worship services. As I mentioned above, I will be keeping in contact with you. As soon as we can reopen our church for public worship, we will. I know that President Trump’s guidelines go through the end of March, but we serve an awesome God who works miracles. If He wills, He can stop the coronavirus in its tracks and thwart its advance in our society much faster than medical professionals believe to be physically possible. We very well may not be able to have in person church worship on March 29, but I will not make that decision until next week. I am praying for this pandemic’s progress to slow and for the state of emergency to pass quickly. Please pray these things with me until we can all meet together again.